Empathy: “The experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling.”
Depression and anxiety are common medical conditions that afflict millions of people across the world. According to mentalhealth.org they account for nearly 20% of all GP appointments in the UK
What is confusing for many is that these conditions share their names with normal emotions that everyone experiences at some time or another. For example someone might feel anxious about starting a new job or moving to a new city. Equally someone who has never suffered from clinical depression will have felt despair, perhaps following the death of a loved one.
This insight should in theory provide friends and families [if not society at large] with a better understanding of these diseases. Ironically when it comes to discussing these conditions a fundamental misunderstanding can lead to two common failures of empathy amongst those who are not familiar with mental illness:
“I don’t understand what you are anxious/depressed about?”
“I’m so sorry. I know EXACTLY how you feel, I remember before this job interview…”
In an attempt to relate to someone’s suffering people see things through the lens of their own experience. Both these statements reflect a lack of knowledge rather than a lack of empathy. For now, this may be their best efforts to step into someone else’s shoes.
Even so, these responses can be difficult. The stigma around mental illness means it can take a lot of courage for people to talk about their condition. Once this has been done anything that feels belittling or patronising can be understandably very frustrating.
If you have reached out to someone and heard these words don’t be defeated. With a bit more knowledge people who make the effort to empathise can be supportive. If you take the time to send them a link on Facebook and in the future explain a little more, their understanding will improve. Hopefully then, not only can they support you when things are tough but it might be that bit easier for the next person who has to explain what they are going through.
Here are some resources that may be helpful:
Featured image: Edvard Munch – Anxiety